Technology is our friend: 5 Things we can learn from the likes of BuzzFeed about successful digital publishing
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December 3, 2014

5 Things we can learn from the likes of BuzzFeed about successful digital publishing

This is a longer article with tons of links and explanations. If you're in a hurry, get a quick overview in list-style here.

Henry Blodget, CEO and editor-in-chief of BusinessInsider
Quote from

BuzzFeed, just like Business Insider, Upworthy, BleacherReport and other so-called "pure players“, are thriving in the media business – while traditional publishers struggle to create success stories (BuzzFeed is valued at more than three times the Washington Post). But not only traditional media, also brands and virtually anyone who runs digital media with a business purpose can learn from their approach: going fully digital.

Last month, BuzzFeed published some interesting insights, entitled “How Technology is changing Media”. They emphasize three pillars: social, mobile and video, and deliver many interesting facts. In order to understand the underlying mechanisms and in the end derive learnings from them, we have to dig a little deeper into these three pillars.


There is no doubt that BuzzFeed mainly considers social as a traffic source. They declared in the article mentioned above that they get 5x more traffic from social than they get from search – in February 2014, it was "only" 3.5x more traffic from social compared to search. In consequence, they even do not optimize headlines for search, but for social. Statistics from Shareaholic suggest that the largest part of social referrals comes from Facebook - Twitter for example, in opposite to popular belief, is not even close when it comes to driving traffic.

While many businesses discuss wether and how you should build relations and conduct dialogues on social networks, BuzzFeed seems to see these activities as a subset to one overarching goal: driving traffic to their own destinations by clicks from their fans, but also by shares from fans to their friends. This requires engaging stories and valuable content, especially on Facebook where you need to serve the newsfeed algorithm. So editorial effort that goes into social is therefore an investment in social media as a traffic source. Social is neither a link-publishing machine like with so many publishers, nor a community building and customer dialogue tool – these are merely necessary components to drive traffic, and not objectives in themselves. You may say this is extreme, and BuzzFeed, BleacherReport, Business Insider and all these players may be exceptions. But these developments can be seen, with lesser effect, at virtually any digital destination: Generally, most businesses that run a website see 4 major sources of traffic - search, social, direct traffic and advertising/barter, with search typically delivering the majority. Even if comparisons between visitor value from direct traffic, search and social may emphasize that the value of a social visitor is pretty low, retention among active social media fans and followers may be higher, and this way of generating traffic will be more important in future. The old "destination web", where people visited digital properties by publishers because they remembered the offers or had them bookmarked is clearly a model of the past. Nowadays, instead of users visiting destinations to consume content, the content comes to visitors in their feeds and streams, eventually pulling them to a digital destination - no matter how deep it is buried within that app or website. In the "destination web", the homepage used to be the main entry point and traffic would be diverted into deeper levels of navigation from there. Now, many publishers will confirm from their statistics that the homepage traffic gets a lower and lower percentage of overall visits - and since a homepage is the easiest part of any website inventory to sell, this is often seen as a threat. We will see later on how BuzzFeed deals with this problem. But its roots lie in social as a traffic source, sending people directly to article pages - and we have strong indicators that this mechanic will rather grow than stagnate. Because besides social media, there is a second trend that fuels this development: mobile. Or, as BuzzFeed puts it:
Social feeds are the new homepages, so investing in content designed for social and mobile is becoming increasingly important”.


"Mobile is eating the world", they say. There is a bazillion of stats out there that confirm what many of us have been saying for more than a couple of years now: that we won't see growth from desktop anymore, and that audiences are shifting to mobile. Many publishers cannot embrace the trend, especially in Germany, since mobile pages are terribly under-capitalized, often with only 10 to 20% of the ARPU that they would generate on desktop. But this is a problem partly created from the chaotic landscape of hundreds of media agencies and ad networks that form a fragmented and weak market, responding badly to criticism like small screen sizes, banner blindness, thick thumbs etc., and partly a problem of the ad formats themselves – who says that the banner, more or less unchanged since the mid-90s, is the ultimate answer, especially on mobile?

Consumers do not care: From Facebook's 1.35 billion monthly active users in the last quarter, the number of mobile exclusive users was more than double the size of desktop exclusive. From over 700mn daily active mobile users, over 450mn would be on Facebook mobile exclusive. Even a brand like ESPN had 55% mobile exclusive visitors in September 2014. “Exclusive” means that these people do not visit the desktop site at all, and this has strong implications on digital publishing: on mobile, traffic is even more influenced by referrals than on desktop. Most mobile sessions start in an app - not on a website. Only 14% of our smartphone time is spent on mobile browsers - 86% in apps. While one could think that as a conclusion, one has to build an uber-successful app of greatness,  another objective could be to maintain successful presences in apps that are widely distributed and used among your audiences - try Facebook for example, accumulating 17% of all time (!) spent on iOS and Android smartphones.

Social and mobile interconnect not only here - the one accelerates the trend to the other. BuzzFeed’s social traffic comes 60% from mobile, and their mobile share rate is double of desktop.
Another impact of mobile is that the content itself has to be suitable for those devices, too. You can write 1-3 exhaustive text reports on Robin Williams death (what traditional media typically did), with great research, 6000 words, carefully selected pictures and original interviews and statements, that takes 25 minutes to read and is spread over 7 pages to accompany the text with some more banners, or, like Buzzfeed, publish over 50 stories that are more visual than verbal, easy to understand, aggregating social media posts of relevance to the topic, presenting rare YouTube finds, creating a great "value for attention" relation for the user, hence: adapted to mobile in shape, form and content. This also goes for pillar 3:


While advertisers may not like the idea of small screen sizes, audiences obviously have a different approach: Video consumption on mobile phones is booming. It may be a strange idea to watch the "Dances with Wolves" epic landscape cinematography on a 5 inch screen, but there is enough content out there suitable to smartphones - not only from an imagery perspective, but also with regards to speed of narration. Vine users don't get more than 6 seconds, Instagram not more than 15 seconds. Audiences are impatient. Note that these are numbers from 2010 – and it only got "worse" since then: 19.4% abandon an internet video in the first ten seconds, 44.1% in the first 60 seconds (according to a study from Visible Measures). If the video loads too long or it takes too long to develop a story, they are out – a one second delay in page load time can cost you 11% of page views.
In this era of the probably most impatient audience ever, videos cannot follow a  TV logic, in which the "production price per minute" is one key variable and may lead to videos where storytelling and use of settings is extended to a maximum length – pure poison for online video, and often hard to learn for traditional publishers, because video and pre-rolls are a great source of income as prices are relatively stable and much more attractive than display – and showing a 30 second pre-roll before an 8 second internet video is kind of ridiculous.
BuzzFeed uses YouTube instead and piggybacks on their advertising – and their video stats are breathtaking, with a peak usage during traditional TV primetime and more reach than TV stations in the US.

It is important to note that they don't use video primarily as a pre-roll market. Again, grabbing attention and bringing people to own destinations is the key objective. 27% of BuzzFeed’s close to 2000 videos on YouTube have upwards of 1 million views.

What can we learn from these numbers, perspectives and mechanisms in the digital world? Can these mechanisms and developments be adapted without trying to become a lame copy of BleacherReport or Upworthy? In my opinion, the underlying mechanisms can be exploited by any publisher.

1. Social, mobile, video: All-in or (nearly) nothing

Understanding each pillar is key to success in digital publishing and content distribution, but this is merely a prerequisite: even more important is to understand the interplay between the three. If you are great on social and in video, but terrible in mobile, you will not be successful. If you have a great app with beautiful video in it, but you are virtually not existent in social media, you will have to rely on (shrinking) direct traffic and keep spending money on advertising to draw people to your destination. If you excel in social and have a great adaptive and responsive mobile presence, without video both audiences and advertisers may not stay with you in the long term. As audiences get fragmented in a complex interplay of software platforms, operating systems and screens & devices, strategies will eventually get more complex, too – and will have to emphasize excellence in all three areas.

2. Move beyond agency advertising

Display advertising as such is dysfunctional. It is a "web 1.0" style adaption of what we are doing in print and out of home, just like pre-roll and mid-rolls are a digital mirror of TV advertising. But digital is different – why not in advertising? Remember the “native digital business model” in the Henry Blodget quote at the beginning of this blog post. And now click on this link:

Have you seen the inventory list of skyscrapers, medium rectangles and homepage takeovers? No? Because they’re not there. The key products are custom social posts, promotion and story units, social discovery and video.

In this model, BuzzFeed is the agency, developing the creative, together with the client, and the advertising product is very close to the original editorial product. Once the skillful interplay between social, mobile and video brings users and their attention to their destinations, a capitalization of this attention by adding a banner to content the user is interested in would simply be substandard. Integrating advertising products into the DNA of the site, closely interconnected with editorial, is one expression of a native digital business model. Not one adapted from the physical world.

3. Create more content

To excel in video, social and mobile and exploit the mechanics of digital in our era, the volume of content produced has to go up. BleacherReport is said to employ around 1,000 freelance writers, securing a 4-digit number of articles each day in the world of sports. Similarly, BuzzFeed is said to produce over 350 stories a day – the same output as the New York times, but not with their 1,100 writers. In comparison, Business Insider has 70 full time editorial staff who produce 300 stories a day. So one and the same event may be covered with a variety of stories, optimized for social and mobile, instead of one full piece, optimized for TV or paper and then re-used in digital.

4. Get a new CMS

Legacy content management systems make the transformation to social and mobile hard for many traditional publishers. A modern CMS will have a mobile preview, for example. This sounds like a minor feature, but may have huge impact on theuser experience and limit the amount of work that has to be invested in each article.
Chorus, the CMS now owned by Vox media, describes itself as a native digital platform focused on telling stories in formats designed for humans – not robots, templates or databases:

“You can find all the fundamental characteristics of a CMS – we put content in a database like the rest of them. However, we put just as much emphasis on developing and integrating community, editorial coordination/planning, structured data, custom brand integration, social distribution, metrics, curation, aggregation, and so on”.

As much as content as such has to be separated from distribution to a variety of platforms (social networks, apps, websites…) and devices (watch, smartphone, tablet, PC etc.), its production should be supported by tools with distribution, and first and foremost the reader, in mind.

Using a “first-rate CMS, one which makes publishing both compelling editorial and beautiful advertising a breeze, is a necessary precondition for success.
(Felix Salmon in a blog for reuters).

5. Facilitate editorial and technology interplay

In most businesses that run digital offers for a commercial purpose, and especially in journalistic companies, technology is seen as necessary means of getting the “real product” across: the content, information and entertainment. Typically, the departments that produce content and those that provide the technology have as little touch points as possible. This does not work in a native digital environment. BuzzFeed put so much emphasis on this that they promoted the head of data, Dao Nguyen, to publisher of the company.
BuzzFeed’s CEO Jonah Peretti describes the role as a new type of publisher:

“She isn’t the heir to a newspaper baron […] She’ll lead publishing for the social web, in the most modern sense, where data science, the CMS, technology, and a deep understanding of social networks, mobile devices, and digital video matter most.”

So technology is vital in the production process, in the distribution of content, in generating data and turning these into insights for editorial, from its broader strategy down to assignment sheets for editors. Chris Dixon from Andreesen Horowitz describes BuzzFeed as more of a technology platform than a traditional media company.

Without a strong interplay between editorial and technology, what we used to call “quality journalism” in the old, analogue days, will not be able to reach audiences.